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Veteran actors of Mandarin theatre come together for Red Sky, a play about growing old.

How we age, how we die

Sep 23, 2016 5:50 AM

NELSON Chia, one of Singapore's top Mandarin theatre directors, is only 44. But he has been thinking about death and old age for more than a decade now.

Married to actress Mia Chee, with whom he has 12-year-old twin daughters, he says: "I'm sandwiched between two children and our ageing parents. So it's a good time for me to reflect on the different phases of life. As I watch my children grow, I wonder if they're going through what I went through. At the same time, I'm watching my parents age and trying to understand their feelings."

Hence, the next production he's staging with his company Nine Years Theatre is Red Sky, a 1994 play about ageing and death as experienced by eight senior citizens in a nursing home. Written by Taiwanese theatre doyen Stan Lai, the title ostensibly refers to the colour of the evening sky just before it turns dark.

But Chia explains: "There are two ways to see it: The sky turns red at the end of the day, just before night comes. But it also turns red in the early hours of the day, just before morning comes ... It's two sides of the same coin."

This dual perspective encompassing optimism and pessimism runs through the play. The senior citizens bond over food, music, art and memories of the past - even as they confront their fears of mortality.

Chia asks: "Why can't we see growing old as something to celebrate? In agricultural societies, older people are sought-after for their knowledge and wisdom. But in our contemporary industrialised world, our value as human beings are predicated on our productivity. Therefore, old age is seen as a something that's not useful."

The cast includes eight veteran actors of Mandarin theatre, who are aged between 51 and 68. They are Johnny Ng, Yang Shi Bin, Henry Lau, Tay Kong Hui, Goh Guat Kian, Elena Chia Choo Sian, Lim Poey Huang and Liow Shi Suen. 

The youngest of them is Tay, 51, who frequently stars in Nine Years Theatre productions. The oldest of them is Yang, 68, who was once a regular presence in the plays of Singapore doyen Kuo Pao Kun before the latter passed on in 2002.

These veteran actors will be joined by younger actors on stage, including Mia Chee, Hang Qian Chou, Neo Hai Bin, Timothy Wan and Ellison Tan Yuyang. Chia says: "I think it's wonderful that the younger actors get to watch the older ones at work. I remember being young and and observing older actors from the wings - their focus, their presence, their ease. These are things you can't learn from acting textbooks."

Chia and his wife Chee co-founded Nine Years Theatre in 2012. But in a relatively short time, they've gained a strong following among drama lovers for their solid Mandarin adaptations of Western classics such as Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Yasmina Reza's Art and Reginald Rose's 12 Angry Men.

This year, however, the company shifted its focus to Asian classics. In March, it performed Red Demon by Japanese playwright Noda Hideki. Next year, it will translate and stage a Mandarin version of Haresh Sharma's Fundamentally Happy.

Chia adds: "The difference between Western and Asian works is that with the latter, their underlying moral values are closer to us. Asian plays often reflect on family values and filial piety, whereas Western dramas are placed within their specific Christian, cultural and historical contexts. With Red Sky, I've felt a certain ease and familiarity with the story and themes. And the closer I get to the text, the more I feel it."

  • Red Sky is playing at the KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road, from Oct 20 to 23. Tickets from S$38 from Sistic